This Solar-Powered Boat Will Set Sail to Study Climate Change

The best way to get clean ocean samples is from a ship that doesn’t produce pollution.
The Turanor PlanetSolar catamaran is covered in 5,500 square feet of photovoltaic cells. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Jun 29, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Here’s a boat unlike any you’ve ever encountered. And that’s the point. The 100-foot Turanor PlanetSolar has a wide, flat deck covered in solar panels and entered the record books last year as the first solar-powered ship to circle the globe.

A boat that cool had to have a bright future and researchers led by Martin Beniston, a climatologist from the University of Geneva, are about to undertake an expedition that will examine the role oceans play in climate change.

Bastiaan Ibelings is a microbial ecologist at the university who is participating in the project. He tells TakePart that, “Aerosols, small particles in atmosphere, play a role in cloud formation, changing precipitation patterns, and scatter or absorb sunlight.”

“A lot of focus has been placed on man-produced aerosols, but oceans make an important contribution as well,” says Ibelings.

“These natural aerosols, often sulfates as sea or ammonium salts, are the most abundant condensation nuclei in unpolluted environments, like open oceans,” he says. “Aerosols can have both warming and cooling effects. Overall the latter seems to dominate helping to buffer climate change.”

Ibelings explains that during the expedition, the researchers will link what happens in the ocean along the Gulf Stream to the quantity and composition of aerosols. “In particular I’m interested in the link between phytoplankton (algae) production in the ocean and aerosol formation by the ocean,” he says.

He notes that phytoplankton face a challenge trying to bridge the gap between the light they need for photosynthesis, which is available near the surface of the ocean, with nutrients like nitrogen that are typically found at a greater depth.

“Climate change is globally having a negative effect on phytoplankton production as we can see on long-term trends from satellite images,” says Ibelings.

“This is because the warming of the sea surface temperatures and the melting of ice caps reduces upwelling (the wind-driven motion of cooler water towards the ocean surface). Warmer and less saline waters are less dense than colder waters with more saline and this lighter water floats like a blanket on top reducing mixing and the availability of nitrogen and phosphate for phytoplankton growth.”

While the PlanetSolar will be equipped with instruments that provide continuous measurements of temperature, salinity, and other elements, Ibelings says that little had to be done to adjust the ship itself. “We just made small modifications to enable proper instrument positioning.”

“The major advantage of PlanetSolar was there to start with. Unlike other vessels, it does not produce any pollution, so we get a much cleaner sample of the aerosols produced by the ocean.”

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